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Keeping up with the Cohens



“That’s some new kitchen Sandra just had done. State of the art!” “Hey, did you see that brand-new car Mark just bought? Every gadget in the book!” Rather routine, everyday talk.

A rep on the road had broken all his company’s sales records. When asked the secret of his success, he explained that the first thing he said when someone opened the door was, “Did you see what your neighbour Mrs Jones just got?” That trick never failed him.

This was never the Jewish ethic, though. We were taught that privacy, modesty and discretion are characteristics our people have cherished since we became a nation.

“Balaam raised his eyes, and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes” (Numbers 24:3).

What was so special about the Israelites’ dwellings? Rashi offers one interpretation of the verse, that the doorways of their tents in the wilderness were arranged so that they didn’t face each other. One person wasn’t able to see into his neighbour’s tent, and their privacy was protected. In fact, this is one of the explanations of Balaam’s famous praise of the Jews, Mah tovu (How good are your tents, O Jacob.) The heathen prophet was extolling Jewish town planning, how they safeguarded their modesty and protected their personal family lives from would-be busybodies and Peeping Toms, otherwise known as yentas and nudniks.

Another possible interpretation of “not looking into your neighbour’s tent” might be this: don’t look into your neighbour’s tent to help you decide what you should be doing. Your decisions in life shouldn’t be based on what other people are, or aren’t, doing. Certainly not on what your neighbours have or don’t have.

Social workers today painfully testify that family breakdowns are often a result of financial difficulties and the stress they put on marriages. Many of those stresses are self-imposed. Their clients confess that they didn’t really need the new kitchen or car, but once their friends were moving up in the status stakes, they felt under pressure to maintain their social standing.

Whether it’s the kitchen, car, holiday or the latest digital technology, if we allow ourselves to be judged by other people’s criteria, we lay ourselves open to a lot of unnecessary stress. Even a simchah — a wedding or Barmitzvah — can get us into “keeping up with the Cohens” mode, from the seven-layered designer invitation hand-delivered to every guest down to the posh dinner dance replete with ice-cream sculptures.

Why? All because we’re busy looking over our shoulders or peering into the next-door neighbour’s place.

How much resentment, bitterness and disappointment would we avoid if we didn’t try to measure ourselves by other people’s standards! We would be much happier if we looked into ourselves and achieved what we could and should, without drawing comparisons with others.

If we want to enjoy the blessing of “goodly tents”, we should keep our eyes and noses in our own tent. Then we’ll be content, too.

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